I missed the production when our “Big Read” featured the book a few years ago. I read the book again that year. It’s strange how we see different aspects in a book or movie — or stage play! — the second or third time around. (Hollywood has taken note. They’ve learned to remake old movies using today’s so-called stars with a nice measure of $ucce$$ — a whole new audience added to those folks who saw the first version but who want to compare the two.)
While “Tom Sawyer” is not quite the same genre as “The Great Gatsby,” it does, like Gatsby, lend itself to new and repeat audiences. It’s like we don’t remember the humor in the whitewashed fence episode, or the suspense in Tom and Becky’s cave experience.
Every minute is new and entertaining no matter how many times we’ve read or heard the story and no matter that we know how it ends. In the case of Mark Twain, every wise word from the storyteller’s pen brings us pleasure.
So I’m reading “Tom Sawyer” again and finding those treasures that seem as timeless and universal as Solomon’s proverbs. I don’t think I ever paid attention to the author’s 1876 preface to the book. He explains that most of the adventures in the book actually occurred, and some were his own experiences.
He also notes that “the odd superstitions touched upon were all prevalent among children and slaves in the West at the period of this story,” set 30 or 40 years before, during pre-Civil War days.
Although the story was written for boys and girls, Twain admits that part of his plan was to “try to pleasantly remind adults of what they once were themselves, and of how they felt and thought and talked, and what queer enterprises they sometimes engaged in.”
The man had a way with words, and he put those words in the mouths of his characters with skill and perception, giving them accents and dialect in the vernacular of the day.
A few jewels are worth a closer look. When Tom discovered the joys to be found in whistling, we’re told that he “strode down the street with his mouth full of harmony and his soul full of gratitude.”
I doubt that Tom knew what a wolf whistle was, but in his never-ending quest to impress Becky Thatcher, that might have worked better than some of his other efforts: balancing a straw on his nose, performing some dangerous gymnastics, scuffling with boys, pulling hair, making faces, and to cap it all, winning (by cheating) the coveted Bible prize for memorizing 2,000 verses!
Of course, he had not memorized even one verse, but he had mastered the art of bartering and had somehow amassed enough of the tickets awarded when verses had been memorized by others to win the prize. The truth came to light as Tom was asked the names of the first two disciples. His response was “David and Goliath!” The author leaves the reader to guess at the consequences of Tom’s folly in this episode.
If Mark Twain were around today, for real, he would surely surmise that little has changed in human nature. He has been quoted and misquoted, revered, memorized, imitated, and plagiarized. His observations about life and all its twists and turns are humorous, but thought-provoking as well.
One of the early chapters deals with Tom and his lack of an affinity for church. His mind wanders as he looks about him at the different individuals, and his descriptions of each one reads much like folks in small town churches of today.
He takes the reader into the choir loft as the service begins. A hush falls over the congregation…except in the choir where there is tittering and whispering. Tom bemoans the long prayers. He calls the minister a bulletin board, giving out notices of meetings and such.
He is thankful for the distraction as he spies a fly, which he succeeds in capturing, but is made to let go by Aunt Polly. But he is reminded of the beetle he happens to have with him, a pinch-bug, he calls it. And thereby hangs another tale, one that ends in laughter as the last Amen is said.
Tom Sawyer is Mark Twain at his best. Don’t miss performances the next two weekends. It is Elm Street at its best!
Juanita Hughes is retired head of the Woodstock Library.